Monday, January 31, 2011

Autism as a sacred trust

I’ve just returned from a week in my daughter’s home. I give Kristin and her family a week each month, to help with the kids and give Kristin some space as she is working through an online masters degree program. The two older kids are in school, Reilly in third grade and Paige in kindergarten, which leaves two-year old Peter at home. So, for five days I essentially am on “Peter-patrol.”

Peter is bright, beautiful and quite a handful. He has already defied a diagnosis of blindness (see earlier blogs), although he probably will be classified as “legally blind” once he is old enough to respond to the vision tests. But his continued quirky behavior has led the people working with him to suspect autism. He is currently in the middle of a series of tests, and the results seem certain at this point.

Autism—this mystery condition that seems to be affecting more and more people in our country. As if Peter’s visual impairment were not enough, his parents now add this to the challenge of raising this little boy. The crisis element of this news has passed, and we are all on a journey of exploration. What exactly is autism? What does this mean for Peter and his future? What does it mean for Jon and Kristin, for the hopes they cherish for their children?

Our family recently watched the movie, Temple Grandin, and I am currently reading Grandin’s book of essays, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (2006). Grandin’s amazing story documents her struggle through childhood, her social and educational challenges, and her discovery of a connection with animals. This connection eventually led to her Ph.D. as an animal scientist and her remarkable contributions in the design of livestock handling facilities.

One thing that seems clear from this story is that Grandin’s contributions would probably not have been possible without the uniqueness of her autism. It was the specific traits of autism—the visual thought patterns, the intuitiveness, the connection with animals—that enabled Grandin to design the cattle chutes and curved lanes that have made the handling of these beasts much more humane. Grandin writes, “I love nothing more than surveying a plant I’ve designed where the animals are calm and quiet. One third of the cattle in the United States are moved through handling facilities that I have designed.”

Kristin and Jon have taken the position of accepting Peter as he is and considering him God’s gift. The total package includes the autism and visual impairment. This is part of who Peter is. They are actively pursuing resources for ensuring that their son has every chance in the world to become the person God created him to be.

I affirm them in this, although I will continue to pray for God’s healing light to be at work in Peter. I’m open to miracle. I wouldn’t be offended if God took away the autism and give Peter 20/20 vision.

On the other hand, I see the wisdom in my daughter’s attitude, and I admit my lack of perspective. I don’t yet know what God has in mind for Peter. I wonder sometimes, “Is there some way that Peter will bless the world, not in spite of, but because of the special challenges he has?” Is Peter’s autism part of the sacred trust that God has given to us?

So I continue on this journey of prayer and service to my family. Perhaps my best praying is simply being there for them. I’m certainly learning a lot. Already the blessing that is Peter has touched us all. What will this gift to the world become?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Gifts from the sea*

I am writing this on a personal retreat. Hal and I are staying at the Captain’s Cabin, part of Twin Rocks Friends Camp in Rockaway, Oregon. This place is a gift, and this retreat so far has been full of gifts. Here are some of them.

--We drove up on Tuesday night, after a day of work and meetings. Because of flooding, the main highway to Tillamook was closed and we had to travel north, way off the usual route, causing us to arrive at 1:00 a.m. But the forest we traveled through in the dark was vast, mysterious and beautiful, even at night. At one point, as we slowed down to go through a small town, we saw deer on the road ahead of us and were able to stop in time. But as we stopped, we realized that these huge animals immediately in front of us were not deer, but elk. And that there were not just two of them. We had driven into the middle of a herd of about 20 elk. Most of them were on either side of the road; apparently the herd was in the process of crossing when we came upon them. They didn’t linger long to let us admire them, of course, and within probably 10 seconds, they were gone. But what a privilege and joy to be in their midst, however briefly. We carried a sense of awe with us for the rest of the trip.

--Yesterday morning, well before dawn, we walked the beach under a clear sky brightened by a full moon. The moon was setting over the sea, and as we walked, the path of light over the water followed us. With still a few hours before the winter sun would crest the hills, the sands shone in the moon light. Overhead, only a few stars managed to shine through.

--A sunny day in January is always a gift, but enjoying it at the beach is a bonus we don’t take lightly.

--I found the perfect walking stick, sturdy, smoothed by the waves, and just the right length.

--Dragons! The shores were populated by driftwood dragons, some of them vanquished, others in repose, waiting for the next challenge.

--More heart-rocks for my silly collection.

--A sunset whose swirling colors clearly proclaimed the glory of God.

--Time to work (we called this a “working retreat,” not a vacation), pray, talk, read, watch movies, sleep-in. Yes.

--This cabin itself. The Captain’s Cabin was a gift to Twin Rocks many years ago, but a gift with a stipulation. This small house overlooking the beach is to be used primarily by pastors and missionaries, at an economical rate that makes it possible.

 I am grateful and I feel renewed in spirit, ready to go home and face the work I have been given. I guess that’s what retreats are supposed to do.

(*Thanks to Anne Morrow Lindberg for the title)

More monsters

Friday, January 14, 2011

A fellowship of poets

I spent yesterday at a conference entitled, “A Celebration of the Life and Poetry of William Stafford,” sponsored by the Peace and Justice Center of George Fox University and a society called the “Friends of William Stafford.” The conference focused on the life, poetry and peace stand of Stafford, as well as on the nature of poetry. The cast of presenters and readers was impressive, including current and former Oregon Poet Laureates, Paulann Petersen and Lawson Inada.

I feel strangely at home in the company of poets and lovers of poetry. I say “strangely” because I met most of these people for the first time yesterday. But poetry involves a unique set of values and a certain way of looking at the world. We agreed, in the words of a Stafford poem that was read several times during the day, that “it is important that awake people be awake…the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should be clear: the darkness around us is deep” (“A Ritual to Read to Each Other”).

At different times during the day, people told stories about William Stafford. I had my own story to tell. In 1992, a year before his death, Stafford did a poetry reading in Newberg. Only about 25 of us gathered at the Catholic Church in town to hear him. At the end of the reading I mustered up the nerve to approach him and tell him that I, too, was a poet. His response was not only warm and accepting, he asked to see some of my poems and wrote out his address. I sent him a few poems right away, keeping my expectations somewhat low. After all, he was a Poet Laureate and I, an unknown.

But his response came immediately. He said he liked my poems. He asked if Hal and I might like to come to his home and get better acquainted. He drew me a map to his house.

I still have that letter, tucked into one of his poem books. We spent a wonderful morning in his house in Lake Oswego, sitting in the breakfast room, overlooking his garden. He read new poems to us, I read mine to him. We talked about the writing life. I learned that he got up every morning at 4:00, sat awhile in the silence (how Quaker-like), then wrote from what he received. Every morning. And he was a prolific poet. What impresses me today about this memory, added to the other stories I listened to yesterday, is what a gracious person William Stafford was. A poem, as well as a poet.

Recently a movie was made about Stafford and the peace movement, based on his journals and including the testimonies of other contemporary poets. It has a great title, “Every War Has Two Losers.” I bought a copy but haven’t viewed it yet. I did see at the conference another movie about the friendship between Stafford and Robert Bly, “A Literary Friendship.” Excellent. I will watch it again this week. Another testimony to the fellowship of poets.

When I returned home a package awaited me in the mail, a small volume of poems, hot off the press, written by Chilean poet (and friend) Luis Cruz Villalobos. He had previously sent me a digital copy, but this is the real thing. His first published book of poems, Breve mente, a play on words that could simply mean “briefly”—and many of the poems are strings of brief stanzas—or it could mean “brief or little mind”—a typically humble statement (like Saint Paul’s “I am the least of the smallest of all the saints”), or even “snippets from the mind”. I know enough about poetry not to ask, to simply let the ambiguity play in my own mind.

I am touched to see that Luis dedicated the book to me, and to another poet friend of his. This is a first, and I accept with gratitude and with a renewed intention to “be awake” and let the signals I give be clear. It helps to know that, while the darkness around us is deep, there is a gathering place where friendship, poetry and peace are possible. Our mandate is to extend it gently into the darkness.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Best books of 2010

Hal gave me a Kindle for Christmas. We had been discussing whether or not to take the plunge with this new technology, and now we’ve done it. I’m trying to get used to it, and I can already see that this will never replace the feel of a real book in my hands. But it has its advantages. This will definitely allow us to travel lighter, and we travel a lot. And I appreciate how gently the larger print treats my eyes. The first book I uploaded was a free copy (imagine that!) of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a book I’ve been meaning to re-read, and I feel like I’m flying through it, partly because my eyes don’t burn. A detail, but an important detail for my future with books.

But now, a look at the past: 2010. I love reading other people’s list of favorite books and movies, and their recommendations lead me down exciting paths. So, here’s my list. The year 2010 refers to the books I read last year, not books that were published during the year. These are not in any particular order.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998): Fiction. I read these novels at the recommendation of my friend, David Gilmore, and was delighted at the quirky coming together of science fiction and mission theory. These chronicle the improbable missionary adventures of Father Emilio Sanchez (and company) as he attempts to spread the gospel among the alien population of a distant planet. The books treat serious issues, such as how to communicate the gospel and plant churches while respecting the culture of the recipients. They also deal with the redemptive suffering of God’s servants. Plus, the story itself is gripping.

Geraldine Brook, March (2005): Fiction. The other side of Little Women, this story follows the father of the March girls to the Civil War and gives an inside view of the horrors of war.

Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Gurnesy Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2009). Fiction. Another insider view of war, this novel in letter form narrates life during the German occupation of Gurnesy, an island in the English Chanel. It also shows the power of great literature to give insight and meaning to life in difficult times. This was one of my favorite books last year.

Alan Patton, Cry the Beloved Country (1942): Fiction. One of my all time favorite books, I again wept at this story of a family in the throes of cultural upheaval, a story of suffering, loyalty, love and transformation.

George MacDonald, The Tutor’s First Love and The Lady’s Confession: Fiction. Hal and I read these aloud, enjoying the simple old-fashioned tales and MacDonald’s insights into how the fruits of the Spirit are fleshed out in God’s sons and daughters.

Greg Mortenson, Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009): Non-fiction. Again we found ourselves moved by Mortenson’s quiet, behind-the-scene attempts to build peace through education in this difficult place.

Evelyn Underhill, Concerning the Inner Life (1926): Devotional. This is a book I want to read at least once a year. Underhill beautifully integrates contemplative and intercessory prayer, showing how our loving worship of God leads to missional involvement with God’s purposes in the world.

Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation of Growing Up in Christ (2010): Theology, spirituality. An encouraging journey through the book of Ephesians, unfolding a spiritual theology of the church. Peterson gives me courage to stick it out, to see the glorious Reality of the church behind all the disturbing realities of whatever local congregation we happen to be involved in. A key insight is that the local church is God’s chief means for bringing transformation, both on the personal and on the broader cultural levels.

Luis Cruz Villalobos, Brevemente y más (2010): Poetry, Spanish. Luis Cruz Villalobos of Chile is becoming one of my favorite Latin American poets. Chile has produced some of the best poets (Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, José Miguel Ibáñez), so Luis stands in good company. This is his first published volume as a “real book,” although he has published widely on the Internet (

Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems (1979-1997): Poetry. Wendell Berry always feeds my spirit. I’ve put a line from one of these poems by my desk: “When we work well, a Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.”

Michael J. Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (2001): Theology, spirituality. A profound study that finds Paul’s spirituality and missiology to be rooted in the cross, both as exemplified in Christ and as lived out in Christ’s servants today. Gorman presents a missional spirituality of suffering and service that is paradoxically joyful. My Mennonite friends Mark and Mary Thiessen Nation recommended this book.

Dave Eggers, What Is the What (2006). Autobiography/Fiction. I picked this out in an airport bookstore and was not disappointed, although it’s definitely not easy reading. It’s the fictionalized true story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the “lost boys” of Darfur. It’s impactful because it gives a human face to the suffering in the Sudan.

I read many other books in 2010, and I’m sure that after I post this, I’ll think of another one that should be on the favorites list. I blogged about some of these earlier in the year (eg.,Children of Fate, The Peaceable Kingdom, The Essentials of Orthodox Spirituality, The Unbearable Lightness of Being). I would love to hear about your favorites.